Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I've about reached the end of what I can say about what it means to say that Aristotle does not think there is an art of the good life. Hopefully, yesterday's post made it clear that the important question is whether virtue can in any way be an art (techne), as opposed to some other spiritual activity. We won't get anywhere answering this question completely without a close reading of Book VI of Nicomachean Ethics and probably Book V, too.

For now, I just want to wrap this series up by pointing out that the very question about what spiritual activity constitutes virtue is dependent on Plato's philosophical findings as published in the Republic. Plato could still take it as a reputable opinion (endoxa) that virtue is an art. But he brings this opinion to the point of crisis through his account of justice. Book II , which obliquely introduces justice in the form of a division of labor, shows that art as an activity of the soul is subject to competition, not between artists but within each artist's soul; two arts in the same soul ruin each other. The discovery of this competition makes it impossible to think of virtue as an art.

Although, as we've seen, Aristotle starts his treatise on a dialectical ground of opinions, these probable starting points notably omit the formerly reputable opinion that virtue is an art. In this omission, which makes the inquiry of Book VI possible, Aristotle follows the thinking of Plato.

That is all I mean by "There can therefore be no art concerning the accomplishment of the human good, and that is just what Aristotle thinks." Admittedly, I wanted to mean more by it when I wrote it a few days ago, but perhaps I should say that I wanted to mean less, since I was thinking of an identity in the conclusions, and now I am thinking of an identity in the beginning, and of course the beginning is more than half the whole (as both Plato and Aristotle say).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Whether there is an art of the good

In case you didn't make it through yesterday's post, here's where we're at regarding the different anti-systematic factors of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics:
  1. The guiding question of the work has no ready-made place in a system of valid undertakings, justifiable in advance on the basis of their outcomes.

  2. To determine the object of the spiritual activity of posing this question as something political has at least to begin with no scientific basis.

  3. Now let me just add that

  4. Aristotle leaves in question what the spiritual activity itself is, which when it directs itself to politics seems to supply the governing hold on the highest good.

"But if this is so," he says of the possibility of improving our aim by knowledge of the highest good, "one ought to try to get a grasp, at least in outline, of what it is and to what kind of knowledge or capacity it belongs" (tr. Joe Sachs, emphasis mine). Is politics a knowledge or a capacity? As Sachs point out in a note to his translation, "Aristotle does not specify the noun implicit in the substantive adjective "the political" (he politike), so "politics" here, from its context, means either the knowledge, the art, or some other capacity that is devoted to the things of the city."

Whether this indeterminacy is a deficiency of the starting point, to be scientifically honed down to a single definite spiritual activity, or reflects an indeterminacy in the subject matter, remains to be seen.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Kinds of imprecision

It is not enough to point out that Aristotle's thinking is not always systematic. For this observation to amount to anything would require an enumeration and clarification of the differences from systematicity in his writings, as well as a demonstration of the extent to which these characteristics of his writings are not merely the mode of presentation of a set of doctrines which is in itself systematic. (One way of reading the Nicomachean Ethics, once it has become obvious that the text cannot be a coherent set of asserted propositions, is to try to identify which of those propositions represent Aristotle's actual doctrine or "considered opinion," and which were only a imprecise scaffolding or dialectical counterpoint. This seems to me still to attribute too much systematicity to Aristotle.)

As Pseudonoma already pointed out, the first hold Aristotle gets on the good of human life in the Nicomachean Ethics is dialectical: there is no scientific grounding for the position that politics is a master art, or that it would belong to such an art to supply governing knowledge of the highest good, or that the ground of a city is higher than that of the individual. Furthermore, as I pointed out in answer, the entire passage bases its validity on the hypothesis that there is a highest human good at all, and it is only in the context of this hypothesis that it even makes sense to say what that highest good would be (whether scientifically or dialectically). This hypothesis is not a presupposition, but a consciously hazarded entrance into a question which it might do no good to pursue. The study of ethics cannot at its inception justify itself as something ethical--which puts the following limitation on the possible findings of ethics: if in the end ethics does some good, and if this is because it directs us to the highest good, then it follows that the good of human life must be accessible without the introduction of the certainty born of deliberation (which means, a fortiori, without ethics); or if ethics does no good, well, that has almost the same result.

But before I can explain my sense of the first book of the Ethics, there is still one more important imprecision to be enumerated...tomorrow.


Prepare for a new wave of KTL proliferation. I think I've figured out a way to be able to write every day. If you notice, however, in the near future that my posts are less precipitous than usual, that is because I am handwriting everything and copying it in later. I'm not doing this on purpose to improve my writing (though I do hope it will), it's just that I can't use my computer in front of my son without his clambering all over me shouting "BAT BAT BAT BAT BAT BAT BAT BAT..."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

You might think of Aristotle as a very systematic philosopher. His treatises are for the most part each devoted to one of a range of themes which are still regarded as though they were departments of philosophy: ethics, philosophy of nature, logic, metaphysics, to name the big ones. So you might expect that he would present in each of these treatises a set of doctrines, along with some arguments for them. You might think that it would be pretty easy to separate the doctrines from the arguments and walk away with the "Aristotelian system" in your back pocket. Or you might not, dear reader, I don't know you that well. But I have always tended to expect this systematic structure in Aristotle, and I am even now surprised whenever I find in Aristotle's writings show more sketches toward a way of thinking than finished representations.

Well, that was supposed to be a preface to some remarks about the first pages of the Nicomachean Ethics, but that's all I can do today. I owe you.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Introduction to the identity of Platonic and Aristotelian theories of the good

One man, one art.

This rule is laid down in the Republic of Plato as indispensable to the true city. If we contextualize this principle, which in the course of the Republic comes to light as the definition of justice (viz., "One man, one art"), we see that Plato defines justice as the principle which ensures maximal flourishing (in the sense of completion of a work) of the whole in which it inheres. This definition is justified by the agreement that justice is the human good, combined with the understanding that humans are creatures whose good consists in the completion of some work.

Justice, if the earlier treatment of it in the Republic as one art alongside others retains its currency, turns out to be the art of success in arts. But this definition renders it impossible to apply. One would have to have two arts, the art of justice and the art whose success it is to ensure. But the former art would consist in having only one art, which would make it impossible to have a second art to which it could apply.

There can therefore be no art concerning the accomplishment of the human good, and that is just what Aristotle thinks.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

readings last week

Anscombe, An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, ch. 11, "Generality."
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Prologue; Q. 1 [notes]; Q. 2, a. 1.
Des Chenes, Physiologia, ch. 2 (-2.3), "Motus, Potentia, Actus."
Saki, "Wratislav"
Wittgenstein, TLP, 5-5.641
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, pp. 3-20. [notes]

essay on the essential mood of language

Wittgenstein's famous notion of a "family resemblance" is introduced obliquely in the opening discussion of language-games in the Philosophical Investigations. There, the question, "But how many kinds of sentence are there?" implies the eventual unstated answer, "Just look and see how they are related."

In order to bring this answer out implicitly, Wittgenstein 'tries' to reduce all utterance to the indicative mood by making explicit the framework of report which is supposed to insensibly accompany all utterances (i.e. "I want you to...," "I would like to know...," etc.). He rightly observes that this reduction does not help to "bring the different language-games together." The resemblance among them and their innate common referability to the indicative must be presupposed for them to serve as arguments of that frame made explicit.

The significance Wittgenstein sees in the possibility of reduction to the indicative (what solipsism means to say but can't) is doubtful. The analysis here of the common referability of different kinds of sentence completely ignores the findings of the previous sections. The test-cases of highly primitive languages make it more plausible that the common mood of utterance would be on a spectrum from invitatory to imperative. The teaching of solipsism itself could be expressed, "Invite this thought into your head: I am everything."

The above example shows that the correlative of invitation/command is not necessarily acceptance/obedience, at least insofar as the latter is taken to express a completely passive position. Acceptance/obedience must itself be reducible to invitation/command, not reciprocally doubling back on the speaker but experimentally or expectantly or hopefully transmitting the same mood or spectrum of moods forward into reality--urging it to respond to my will, soliciting its meaning, demanding its adherence to a physical model, expecting it to resonate with joyful surprise (as when I laugh at a joke)--and so on. The essence of language shows up clearly in the transmissions of its original mood in a way that renders not hopeless the project of scientifically comprehending the common aspect under which all appear (provided that science, too, can be reduced to the original mood).

Furthermore, the transitivity of acceptance/obedience can be transmitted back into the invitation/command, which itself must have listened to something more original.

Two clarifications: first, a 'spectrum' of mood does not repeat the problematic of an indeterminate diversity of functions. It is one mood with two poles--the orientation to one or the other of which is the whole field of ethics. Second: on this understanding, the equivalence of solipsism and realism (as treated in the TLP) has no place. The essence of language corresponds to a sol-"us"-ism, where the "us" is indeterminately defined but must include whatever is most original. The listener is as much the limit of the world as is the speaker. In the face of this contradiction of multiple limits, language ranges from a sociopathic campaign to regularize the conflict of limits according to my own, to a late, lyrical lament arising out of the pain of contradiction between world and self.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Socrates and Adeimantus:
"And what about this? Who would do a finer job, one man practicing many arts, or one man one art?"
"One man, one art," he said.
"And, further, it's also plain, I suppose, that if a man lets the crucial moment (kairos) in any work pass, it is completely ruined."
"Yes, it is plain."

It is this neglect of the crucial moment, due to the interruption of a work, which I would like to put forward as a Platonic cousin of the 'Aristotelian' cousin of the deviance from a terminus ad quem. (Aristotelian is in scare quotes here not because I am aware of any divergence from Aristotle's doctrine on this point in the late Aristotelians, but simply because I am not yet aware of Aristotle's doctrine on this point, if he has one. I suspect it is not too different from Plato's in any case.)

I don't have a great quote for terminus ad quem but "J" proposes a squirrel eating an acorn, preventing its arrival at becoming an oak. The squirrel is of course only fulfilling its own being--nothing "devilish" about that.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I wonder whether the principle--which is supposed to be distinctively Aristotelian--that deviance from nature is the result of an interruption of the interval from a terminus a quo to a terminus ad quem could have a common provenance with the Platonic-Socratic sense of the interruption of one work by another, which robs each of its crucial moment. Is a terminus ad quem a kairos?

I'll have to write something later contextualizing this question for those of you who are not picking up my psychic broadcast.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Historicism as the Substantiation of a Material Conditional

Here is Robert M. Wallace's concise description (in his introduction to The Legitimacy of the Modern Age) of the theory of "reoccupation of positions" as an explanation of modernity's pretensions, in opposition to the then-prevalent theory of secularization:
When modern thinkers abandoned the Christian 'answers,' they still felt an obligation to answer the questions that went with them--to show that modern thought was equal to any challenge, as it were. It was this compulsion to "reoccupy" the "position" of the medieval Christian schema of creation and eschatology--rather than leave it empty, as a rationality that was aware of its own limits might have done--that led to the grandiose constructions of the 'philosophy of history.' And naturally these constructions drew more attention to themselves than did the modest idea of possible progress that was overextended (and discredited) in their service.

Although the context in which reoccupation theory emerges is the explanation of a certain overextending attitude of arrogance typical of early, un-self-critical modernity, Blumenberg finds other explanatory uses for it. One might say of it what Blumenberg himself says, incredulously, of the secularization thesis: "If one took the frequency of its application as evidence, there could be no doubt about the historical applicability of the category of secularization. Its productivity seems to be unlimited" (13). In the chapter entitled "The Epochs of the Concept of an Epoch," Blumenberg uses it to dispel the logic by which epochs seem to be necessarily nominal, not real.

The nominal concept of epoch which held sway in the prior "epoch of the concept of an epoch," as exemplified by Bishop Bossuet's Discours sur l'histoire universelle, had as its function the clarification of times. Bossuet, Blumenberg writes,
had still related the concept of an epoch to the privileged standpoint of the contemplator of history for whom the comparison of ages was to be possible. It is not history but this contemplator of history who halts at a resting place so as to survey what happens before and after and thus to avoid anachronisms, the errors that consist in confusing one age with another. (460)

According to Bossuet, these historical vantage points are like the "principal countries" which one marks on a general map of the world as reference points for the others; their function is "to help the memory in the knowledge" of its object. The student of history is supplied with a framework whereby he can frame a material conditional to determine when any given event might have occurred. In principle then, no necessity attaches to the use of any particular collection of epochs.

Blumenberg rather confusingly subverts Bossuet's model of historical error by showing what happens if one takes the material conditional in a more substantial sense of dependence:
The quality of the 'epoch' presents itself, to begin with, as the summation of those features that protect the historian from leveling off the course of history into the monotony of what is always the same, and thus from the error of thinking that anything can happen at any time. Independently of the clerical universal historian's actual intentions, this would perhaps in fact be the most comprehensive definition of the possibilities of error in historical cognition. (460-1; emphasis added)

The sense "that anything can happen at any time" would mean for Bossuet only that a student of history has so blank a sense of the content of history that they are reduced to brute memorization when trying to fix the time of an event's occurrence. Blumenberg brings out the ambiguity of the material formulation arising out of the study of history that "[not] anything can happen at any time": it can be turned to the use of historicism, which would take it to mean that a substantial rather than merely logical dependence prevents any given event from occurring in any but its proper epoch.

The possibility of this subversion of the formulation fits out the mnemonic function of epochs to put pressure on a new historiography which otherwise would have nothing to do with the chronological historiography of a Bossuet. Why should historicism bind itself to strict chronological articulation? In the shift from nominal articulation for the convenience of the student to real articulation of history prior to any studied apprehension, does not the justification for a requirement of chronological exactitude disappear? But insofar as something makes the real principled division of history present itself as an image of the division of history in the mind, or rather as an immanentization of what originally was in the mind, it may be expected to serve the same function as it did in mind--preventing "confusion of times."

Friday, March 12, 2010

I made the mistake of trying to edit today's post before publishing it. Tomorrow, I promise.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Perhaps because Wittgenstein himself in various places renounced the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his interpreters seem to feel a need to locate the proof which could definitively dissuade a Tractarian believer. I am suspicious of all such proofs by whomever they may be proffered. Anscombe, for instance, claims that the Tractarian claim that the truths of logic are tautological falls to Church's proof "that multiple quantification theory has no decision procedure; that is, that there cannot be a method by which one could settle, concerning any well-formed formula of that theory, whether it was a theorem or not." But a proof could easily be given in turn that the propositions of the Tractatus itself have no "decision procedure," since they all present themselves under the force of the final retraction which denies them the status of propositions. In order for a proof to demonstrate the falsehood of any claim in the Tractatus, it would first have to regard the claim as something which might be either true or false, and in this way it would fail to receive their meaning and wind up having no relevance to the Tractatus whatsoever.

Here is a typical statement (from Culture and Value) of Wittgenstein renouncing the Tractatus:
I might say: if the place I want to get to could only be reached by way of a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place I really have to get to is a place I must already be at now.
Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me.

What Wittgenstein renounces in the Tractatus is its own manner of renunciation--it "throws away the ladder" only after having used it to get somewhere. "It is a great temptation," says another remark in Culture and Value, "to try to make the spirit explicit." If the temptation tries to mitigate itself by intending subsequently to put this explicitation under erasure, that only makes the temptation all the more insidious, because it betrays the spirit while pretending to piety. It is Wittgenstein's succumbing to this temptation in the Tractatus which calls for its renunciation.

Introduction to Wittgenstein's Secular Demonology

Is this the sense of belief in the Devil: that not everything that comes to us as an inspiration comes from what is good?

I wonder what moved Wittgenstein to venture this formulation. It seems calculated to make viable an integration of pious caution with the bold impiety of the age. The atheist who believes in demons would be like the good architect according to Wittgenstein's earlier remark:
Today the difference between a good and a poor architect is that the poor architect succumbs to every temptation and the good one resists it.

But what is the point of treating the moderation of a secular progressiveness as "belief in the Devil," even when the Devil has nothing to do with it? Is this a secularization theory, claiming that even hard-nosed materialists may secretly still believe in the devil? Or a theory of consequential equivalence, claiming only that we might as well say they believe? Or is there yet another possibility, that "Devil" never meant anything other than the indeterminate source of inspirations which do not come from what is good, and that the secular caution of the type of the good architect only makes this indeterminacy obvious?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

reading notes update

Finally finished notes for Ch.7 of Blumenberg.

Some questions on the City of God

It is peculiar that, on the one hand, St. Augustine's demonology justifies itself on the basis of a syllogism in which Christians draw the conclusion, while in other cases, he takes it to be more characteristic of the Christian habit of theological virtue either to resist the conclusion of a syllogism or to defer the scientific pursuit of a middle term. What determines the Christian position with regard to a particular syllogism? Why does the contradiction of divine foreknowledge and human freedom not force something to give by the rules of hypothetical deduction? Why by contrast is the arbitrariness of a beginning of the world in infinite time decisively contradictory to the divine will? Or how can the essence of the divine justice of history, which indubitably exists as the middle term of a syllogism, be withheld for the final judgment?

Evidently, the role of logic in The City of God is not as determinate as might appear from any particular passage.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Divine Dilemma

We too easily flatten (and think ourselves justified in overlooking) the thinking of the early philosophical lights of the Christian age by reading into them a naive and unreflective Platonism. The polemic of apologetics may veer at times in the direction a heavy-handed condemnation of all the likenesses of truth pretending to the position of the original, but we must ask whether it is after all through some studied intellectual ascent that the original becomes discernible as such.

The always insightful and inspiring Bioluminescences blog offers a reflection (not unflavored by the customary proportion of rosemary) on the situation of idolatry and demonism in the derivation of evil presented in St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation. The familiar Platonic structure of imitation subverting original suggests that we should expect that these two forms of imitative divinity would automatically take pride of place in this derivation. Instead, we find the Doctor of Deathlessness (you can use that one, everybody) thoughtfully developing the imitative impieties in the context of a narrative of descent:
The last paragraph of Chapter 11 traces out a particularly striking picture of that path down through rings of Hell on Earth – a set of dominoes crashing down, one after the other, inevitably. But that idolatry and blatant sinfulness we come to expect are found in the middle of that path. They are neither the first causes nor the final effects, but rather the inglorious unfolding of a tragedy whose root is ingratitude and whose fruit is ignorance.

If ingratitude is the ground from which every impious turn begins, is gratitude a guarantee against impiety? Or are there limiting cases in which the most earnest gratitude would still devolve through demonism into a disappearance of piety? How should we read W. B. Yeats's poem, "Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors?"
What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

What is there to be thankful for in this instruction? I wonder with a shudder at the identity of these instructors. There is the cold, unpitying savor of tragic joy in this precipitous dependence of all things upon... what remains--when all things are said to hang--for them to hang upon? Nothing. Can we be grateful for nothing?

I believe that the possibility of a redemption of Yeats's poetics hangs upon the answer to this question.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Blumenberg's theory of tradition

The question of the legitimacy of the secularization thesis (no not that secularization thesis, the other one)hinges in part on the interpretation of spiritual ownership, a concept which has been much discussed in the short life of this blog. What Blumenberg calls the "background metaphor" of the idea that progress (and a raft of related modern tropes) are not legimitate productions of modernity but taken and twisted from Christian theology is the notion of ideas as spiritual property. How one takes "property" here will determine in what respects it makes sense to speak of modernity acquiring the property of its historical predecessor.

The "anachronism" of the secularization thesis , according to Blumenberg, lies in the difference between the criteria of legitimate ownership respectively maintained by the Christian and modern epochs. From the perspective of Christian theology, "legitimate ownership arises through acquisition from the hand that has disposition over the object." The modern epoch, on the other hand, "produced the axiom that the legitimate ownership of ideas can be derived only from their authentic production." These concepts of ownership as applied to spiritual ownership determine the possibilities of tradition.
I've decided not to clutter up the front page and RSS feed of this blog with haphazard reading notes, but I will still upload these to the "Reading Notes" page linked above. I'll do no more here than mention that the page has been updated.

Eventually, I'll want to replace this page with an embedded google wave or set of waves, open to your collaboration. For now, if you are interested in this sort of thing, just comment if you think I've got something wrong or am missing the point.

Yesterday's reading: Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, chs. 5+6

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Blumenberg's theory of tradition

My first impression of Hans Blumenberg's The Legitimacy of the Modern Age is that it is an inconclusive, tangled mess of fairly interesting historical analysis. I'd leave it at that, but something makes me think (and this might just be the nagging awareness that there is an assigned essay to be written on the text) it would be worth working through it a little more carefully for the argument as it relates to tradition.

I don't have a grand unifying thesis on Blumenberg yet. For now I am just collecting extracts and trying to comment on them.

Within the overall framework of a response to the widely accepted secularization theory of the modern world definitively authored by Lowitz, Blumenberg argues that the underlying metaphor of an illegitimate transfer of property fails to register in the actual difference between the Christian age and the modern. The criteria which according to this metaphor which justifies the claim of secularization theory are "the identifiability of the expropriated property, the legitimacy of its initial ownership, and the unilateral nature of its removal" (23-4). The investigation of each of these criteria displays the temporality of tradition in the logic of its interruptions.

Under the heading of the "unilateralness of the removal" we find an account of the self-secularization of eschatology by the logic of its own annunciation, as the source of "worldliness:"

Franz Overbeck wrote that to the Church, the end of this world seemed near only so long as it had not yet conquered a piece of it. But this conquest came too late to repress 'immediate expectation,' to compensate for the great disappointment. It must have been the other way around: The energy of the eschatological 'state of emergency,' set free, pressed toward self-institutionalization in the world. But this does not falsify Overbeck's statement of symmetry: "As long as the Church possesses this piece, it will continue to be interested in the continued existence of the world; if the last piece is ever really endangered, then she will join her voice in the old cry again." (45)

The "property" in question here is eschatology, and according to the secularization theory the notion of progress appropriates this eschatology unilaterally.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Do you think it's strange that for the last two hours I have been preparing for a qualifying examination in philosophy by reading about sperm?